Even by the high standards of current law-making, it is an achievement. The government’s online porn consultation asks people how to implement imaginary powers to deal with an imaginary problem in order to create a regulator they scrapped three months ago.
This is a consultation which takes all the disparate hypocrisies and logical fallacies of the government’s porn policy and puts them together into one perfect package. It is technologically illiterate, politically infantile and seemingly completely ignorant of the government’s own record on the issue.
Yesterday’s consultation aims to fulfill the Tories’ election commitment to make sure “all sites containing pornographic material” must check users are over 18. Their consultation has three major flaws: Firstly it is impossible, secondly they are proposing establishing a regulator they only just got rid of, and thirdly it cements problems they themselves have created.
The first problem with the government plan is that the technological and political structure does not exist to implement it. They might as well legislate for unicorns. It was impossible when then-culture secretary Sajid Javid announced the plans last year – in response to a made-up NSPCC poll on the made-up condition of ‘porn addiction’ in teenagers – and it remains impossible now.
The one area the government can have effect is British porn websites (defined by editorial control rather than the location of the servers). Because they are the British government, they can force them to implement age verification checks on their users. We know this, because the government has already done it, although they don’t seem to know they have (more on that later).
Where they’ll struggle is the rest of the world, which, as it happens, is where most of the pornography comes from. What interest does a pornographer in Los Angeles or Albania have in British legislation? The big players might play ball – PornHub has suggested it will – but porn is very easy to make and upload. There are very many other places teens can access it.
Plans to control overseas porn sites tend to work on the framework established by efforts to curb overseas gambling. Namely, they go for the financial service provider, the middle-man who takes the money from the user and gives it to the website they are joining. As anyone with even the most basic understanding of how online porn operates knows, this will be ineffective, because most sites are free. But the people organising the consultation do not seem to know this.
This level of ignorance is not unusual in anti-porn crusaders. I first came across the financial transaction approach when looking into a private members bill from Baroness Howe, which did largely what the government now intends to do (they were always going to approach the problem by stitching together various backbench bills into a Frankenstein’s monster). When I called Baroness Howe to ask about the bill, her staff were unable to explain it in even the broadest terms and in fact became quite irritated by my having asked. It eventually became clear that the bill had been written for her by a Christian family values group, seemingly in its entirety.
When I asked their resident policy expert what good it would do to target financial transactions when most sites were free, he repeatedly insisted to me that this was not the case and that the majority charge. It was quite amusing. This is a common theme among anti-porn campaigners, both among Christians and radical feminists: they are so disgusted by it they have no experience of it. They quite literally have no idea what they are talking about.
The most astonishing aim in the government’s porn strategy appears quite dull at first glance: they want to create a regulator to enforce the age verification checks. It’s astonishing for one simple reason: they scrapped precisely that regulator last October. That’s when the Authority for Television on Demand (Atvod) was rolled into Ofcom.
No-one weeps for its passing. Atvod was an appalling creation. It had a bizarre fixation on porn showing female domination and disproportionately targeted material showing dominatrixes while giving a free pass to the standard pornographic trope of male domination. This was either because the people running it were engaged in a perpetual psycho-sexual war against their own proclivities, or because dominatrixes were likely to offer services alongside the videos and therefore were easier to locate. Possibly both.
Atvod had taken it onto itself to enforce age verification checks on British websites some time ago. The regulator was a product of an EU directive demanding that member states include TV-on-demand – services like iPlayer or 4oD – under some regulatory framework. Everyone else in the EU – literally everyone – added a line or two to whatever legislation they had bringing the services under the control of whichever regulator they already used. Only Britain set up its own regulator.
Atvod started life by spreading its net as far as possible, trying to drag in all sorts of sites, including even the newspapers, who largely fought it off. Most porn sites thought it would be easier to give in and pay the relatively modest membership fee to get them off their back. They hadn’t expected what came next, which were onerous demands for age verification. Suddenly British porn sites were having to ask users to provide credit card details or photographs of their passports so they could verify their age.
Needless to say, they mostly went bust overnight or, if they had more capital, moved overseas and set up whatever was required to demonstrate that editorial control was held outside the British Isles (this was often pretty superficial). Internet porn users have plenty of options of overseas sites which won’t ask them for their passport. If you implement onerous controls at home, you do not stop anyone watching anything, but you do single-handedly kill your domestic industry.
The troubling thing about the consultation is that it does not seem to know that Atvod ever existed. Not only are ministers ignorant of the industry they are trying to regulate, but they also seem ignorant of what their own department has been doing.
But aside from the fact that what it is doing is impossible and that it tries to implement that which it only just finished dismantling, the consultation is also staggeringly hypocritical. Just last week, David Cameron was reported to have personally intervened to stop making sex education classes compulsory in all schools.
These classes are vital. We need to teach children to approach porn critically. We cannot stop them watching it – that’s not technically possible – but we can teach them what it is, why pornography and reality are not the same thing, and what the distinction is between fantasy and real human relationships. Most importantly, we can teach them about the absolute primacy of consent in sexual conduct – both in the way we treat others and in the way we should be treated. This is how we protect children against pornography – and teenage pregnancy, and paedophiles, and domestic abuse, and sexting and all the other concerns we have.
But Cameron, in the typical British squeamish tradition, made sure the classes didn’t take place. And now the government is promising imaginary solutions to a problem it cannot control. It is the worst of all possible worlds: children denied the education to understand what porn is and a government unable to stop them seeing it.
Only in the world of porn regulation would you see this level of ignorance and hypocrisy masquerading as policy. It is a shambles. But because everyone is so embarrassed to talk about it, the government can keep on churning it out.